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BW Businessworld

Queen’s Gambit and the Management Lessons: A Perspective

Queen’s Gambit is an excellent portrayal of the power of human mind and how it can overcome challenges to meet its final goal beautifully narrated in the form of Beth’s story. Similarly, companies can also succeed if they have the willingness to do so.

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The hugely popular series of Netflix titled Queen’s Gambit was based on the life of chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon. It garnered the highest Television Rating points (TRP) in the year 2020, making it the most watched series ever on the streaming service. It was in the Top 10 list of most watched shows in 92 countries across the globe. The seven-episode series tells us about Elizabeth (Beth) Harmon’s stupendous rise in the world of chess which was dominated by male players in the era of 1960s. Beth is orphaned at a young age of 9. She starts to learn the nuances of chess from the custodian of her orphanage in the basement. She also grapples with addictions to the magic green pills given at her orphanage to maintain disposition. Subsequently she is adopted and with the help from her mother starts to participate in local chess tournaments, moving on to international tournaments. Her skill and dexterity in the game make her the world champion. The popularity of the serial notwithstanding it has huge lessons for the management community.

The Management Lessons

Lesson 1: Moving beyond the comfort zone

Beth’s life takes a complete turn when she finds herself in the harsh life conditions of an orphanage. A comfortable life with her mother was all she had seen before this. Many times companies find it appropriate to move beyond their comfort zones to garner more success. Sometimes it is seen that companies venture into a completely new territory. This has happened in case of Reliance Industries limited (RIL) where it has ventured out into several unrelated businesses. An example in point is Reliance Jio which became one of the most popular ventures in telecom industry in India. This enticed bigger players like Google and Facebook to invest stake in the company. Thus, in today’s environment companies should always be willing to venture far and beyond their niche areas. There may be initial risks but the success achieved can far outpace these risks. Apple became a success in cell phones after specializing in personal computers and tablets. Wipro started its initial business with soaps and lighting bulbs, today it is the third largest provider of IT services. IBM had also initially started with hardware business which consisted of machines and frames. Later on it moved to software, research and consulting services. Who can forget that Amazon started out as a book seller, today it is a dominant player in cloud computing and e-commerce. Amazon cloud platform is also providing services to other companies. Netflix started with buying and selling of DVDs and is the top entertainment streaming service provider. These companies succeeded due to their radical changing strategies and the idea to embrace new.

Lesson 2:  Gender Equality

In the series when episode after episode, Harmon takes over the world of chess like a storm, female players are mostly unheard of. “Girls don’t play chess” says Mr. William Shaiebel to Beth before becoming her mentor. She breaks the gender bias across the series defeating the male champions. “It takes a strong woman to stay by herself where many would settle for far less” was an advice given by Beth’s mother. Today, we see numerous examples of women who are leading their companies from the front like Indira Nooyi of PepsiCo, Julie Sweet of Accenture, Jane Fraser of Citi group, Marry Bara of General Motors, and Susan Diane Wojcicki of YouTube. In 2020, there were 37 women CEOs listed in the list of Fortune 500 companies. 

Lesson 3: Overconfidence is root cause of failure 

Beth’s journey towards becoming a world champion is not without its problems. She lost Las Vegas US championship. Beth meets similar fate when in the Mexico City International Chess Tournament. These losses occurred when Beth became overconfident. Similarly, we find that companies which once dominated their industry met failure as they failed to innovate with the changing times and became complacent. Examples of real-world corporations are Nokia in mobile telephony which clearly refused to see Apple as a threat in the smart phone market, Orkut in social media which refused to revamp when Facebook was taking the world of social media by storm. Blackberry gives a befitting example of complacency and a clear lack of innovation, though it was one of the first companies to enter the smartphone market. Thus, it is important for companies to keep innovating and no company should ever think that it is too big to fail.

Lesson 4: Be differentiated to achieve success

Beth tries to emulate the other high school girls in their gossip sessions but realizes that she is a misfit and her first and only love is chess. These days it is important for companies to have a unique selling proposition (USP) and a good brand image. The companies which have tried to be different than the rest of the clout have succeeded. Success is never instantaneous, companies which have a formidable belief in their abilities take years to build a brand image. The transformation from Lucky Goldstar to LG spanned years of brand development. LG is today known for its quality products and constant innovation. Apple has done a phenomenal job by differentiating itself from its competitors by clearly thinking ahead of times and acting differently. Amazon has beaten many of its competitors on the sole mantra of convenience in online shopping. Nike relies on constant innovation, personalization and giving the best experience to athletes to perform.

Lesson 5: Keep your friends close but your enemy closer

Beth held Russian, grandmaster Vasily Bergove in awe and kept following him through his previous games, by the books written he wrote and his television interviews. Beth also observed Beltik closely before playing with him in the tournament. Similarly, it is important for companies to keep a track of their competitors. Blackberry which was once a dominant player refused to acknowledge its rivals such as I-phone on time, the company was slow to add on new features and was overtaken by i-phone with its big sweeping features. Polaroid met a similar fate. It was once a leading player in cameras and faced little competition. Polaroid lacked complete traction in innovation and was wiped out by digital cameras. Thus, sometimes it is important for companies to make the first move. 

Lesson 6: Learning is a continuous curve

Beth who was excellent in her game, kept learning the tactics and strategies from her fellow players Henry Beltik, Benny Watts and others whom she had already defeated. This made her understand hard truths about her deficiencies. She was always seen reading books on chess and strategizing before all her major games. Beth even decides to learn Russian so that she can communicate with the world chess players when she confronts them in future. Thus, learning and discipline is a continuous curve for every company to be successful. Facebook Corporation is an excellent example as it watched hawk eyed the success of WhatsApp and Instagram. Facebook acquisition of the two brought it on another level of success. Thus, the companies in today’s world have to be very watchful for changes in their environment and constantly learn and evolve. Amazon has continuously evolved and innovated, moving from one sector to another. Today it boasts of space in music, television streaming, gaming network and e-commerce. Recently Amazon has also entered into cloud computing recognizing an immediate need in today’s times. Samsung entered the smartphone market late but was quick to identify I-phone strategy of umbrella branding and gained huge success with its galaxy series. It has also continuously innovated and improved its products. 

Lesson 7: Belief in Yourself

Beth, in her journey, also met uncooperative people like her own step dad, but throughout she stood strong. Beth also faced failures several times but it was her grit and determination which made her successful. Similarly, in today’s world, a company needs a strong belief in its ideas and ability to succeed. Apple had a twelve year downward run before it bounced back. Fedex, started in 1971, made losses initially and today it is most successful logistic company in the world. Reddit, launched in 2005, had almost zero visitors, today it is world’s most popular online platform with 169 million monthly visitors. When Amazon launched Kindle with zero expertise, everyone advised against it and it faced several hurdles and backlash. This initiative however, proved to be a game changer for the company. These examples prove that failures are stepping stone to success which could be achieved through unrelenting persistence.

Lesson 8: Working in harmony with others

Beth was always open to constructive criticism which helped in improving her game. She had warm relations with her mother and sought help from her circle time to time. She also ensured that due credit of her success was given to her mentor. Similarly, companies are also required to work in harmony with their employees, customers, and environment. Successful companies respect their employees and customers. Today more than two thirds of companies compete on customer experience. Companies like Netflix and Spotify are excellent examples of customer service. Netflix believes that customer experience begins as soon as he comes in contact with the brand. Amazon is known for its top-end customer satisfaction. It has fully transparent, fast, and easy return policies.  Today we hear of amazon drones, amazon go stores, amazon one click purchases, which provides excellent customer experience. A successful company is not only loved by its customers but also by its employees. Few companies which excel in employee happiness are Zoom, Spotify, Uber, Google, and Facebook. Successful companies equally focus on environmentalism and sustainability as their working goal. Few companies which have focused on sustainability are LG electronics, Schneider Electric of France and McCormick & Company of US. Honda, Tesla and Uniliver are few of other big names which are working on sustainability. Companies will have to realize that the only way to function grow in terms of market share and profit is to work in harmony with all stakeholders and take care of environment in which it operates. 

Queen’s Gambit is an excellent portrayal of the power of human mind and how it can overcome challenges to meet its final goal beautifully narrated in the form of Beth’s story. Similarly, companies can also succeed if they have the willingness to do so. The series impact in real world is noticeable. Chess sellers and manufacturers have seen an astounding rise in sales anywhere between 215 percent to 1000 percent which shows a renewed interest in the board game especially during the lockdown period. The series is an excellent example for a company which has a belief in its abilities along with focus and determination. The commentator in the final episode, where Beth meets Grandmasters, summarizes beautifully, “The one thing we know about Elizabeth Harmon is that she loves to win”. Thus, we conclude that the Queen’s gambit is an exceptional learning in the field of management. The series surely moves deeper beyond the world of chess to teach us core management lessons.

Parul Bajaj, Research Scholar, BIMTECH

Dr. Anuj Sharma, Chairperson-Centre for International Business & Policy, BIMTECH

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tags assigned to this article:
management expertise corporate

Dr. Anuj Sharma

The author is Chairperson - Centre for international Business & Policy, Associate Professor - IB Birla Institute of Management Technology

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Parul Bajaj

The author is Research Scholar, BIMTECH

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